Trust Me – It’s Organic

Trust Me – It’s Organic

William C Bailey

School of Agriculture

Western Illinois University

Labels are important – not just for clothing – but also for music, electronic gear and literature.  Labels also are import for the food and agriculture industries.  Over the past 20 years, consumer spending on organic products has grown from $1 billion a year to almost $30 billion.  So it is safe to assume the organic label is important to many consumers.

The challenge is to define what the organic label actually tells us.  For example with my favorite food, Planter’s Chunky Peanut Butter, I know exactly what I am getting because, in this case, the brand (Planter’s Chunky Peanut Butter) is the label.  When I purchase an unbranded product such as carrots or arugula, which claims to be organic, it is not real clear what I am getting.  Is it really organic?  We may have an idea what is organic, but that ideas, to be useful, should be specific and identical across all products, not just the one I am purchasing.  For example, Chinese Organic Wild Caught Salmon has all of the right words, but is it really organic?

In an attempt to bring consistency to the definition of organic, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) stepped up to out.  It defines organic as “A labeling term that refers to an agricultural product produced in accordance with the Act and the regulations in this part”, and then proceeds to define the production processes that result in a product than can be labeled “Certified Organic”. USDA does not have experts trudging around kale fields in Illinois, or in China, to monitor the production process.   It sets the rules and then out-sources the monitoring to a third party.  If the third party says all of the regulations established by USDA for organic production have been met by the producer, then the USDA organic label may be used.

Western Illinois University’s Allison Farm is certified by USDA as an organic farm that may label its products as “Certified Organic.”  The Allison Farm’s organic crops, including blue corn, popcorn and fava beans, may be sold as organic and form the basis for USDA labels “100% Organic”, “Organic” or “Made with Organic Ingredients.”

In addition to Western’s Allison Farm, there are other food chain participants in Illinois recognized by USDA as “Certified Organic Operations.”  Among those participants is a company selling organic vodka; another company selling organic dog treats.  My personal favorite, as a real coffee quaffer, is a company, near St. Louis, that is selling USDA certified organic coffee.  And there also is a Chicago company that is USDA certified organic for its cosmetics.

It seems a little ironic that, in order to label a product as organic, USDA had to write a complex set of rules and regulations farmers and processors must follow.  But the rules and regulations are written without inorganic input, so the entire regulatory process could be viewed, by some, as entirely organic.

Professor Bailey formerly was the Chief Economist for the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition.  He also has served as Deputy-Under Secretary of Agriculture. 

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